Emerson’s Poet: The Convertible

October 4, 2015 § 3 Comments

No, Emerson’s convertible is not a car–though given Emerson’s interest in “the highway” (a phrase he will use in “Experience”) and in the ways the Emersonian spirit is taken up by artists of the road (Whitman, Kerouac, Springsteen), it is not too much of a stretch. Emerson’s “convertible” has come up often in his writing; this key word appears in “Poetry and Imagination,” for example:

Your condition, your employment, is the fable of you. The world is thoroughly anthropomorphized, as if it had passed through the body and mind of man…. We are advertised that there is nothing to which man is not related; that every thing is convertible into every other. [Norton edition, 302]

Emerson goes on to refer to this convertibility as “this metonymy.” I thus identify in Emerson’s interest in the convertibility and conditions of life that poetry highlights, or should, four related characteristics or (to use his term) “conditions” of Emerson’s poetics.

Art is the path of the creator to his work. The paths, or methods, are ideal and enternal, though few men ever see them, not the artist himself for years, or for a lifetime, unless he come into the conditions. [“The Poet,” 196]

I would argue that these four conditions of Emerson’s vision of writing and the writer are crucial to American literature but also in need of remembering. We don’t think of these much when we think of the words: poet, poetry, writer, literature. Convertibility means that poetry (like the Poet) is…

  1. democratic: the focus is on the “daily” (and its transubstantiation) and the social, the common and even the low; sounds most like Whitman in these references. He views Shakespeare’s genius along these lines as well.
  2. pragmatic: the focus is on “use” and the uses of poetry and nature; think William Carlos Williams (no ideas but in things); think William James; think of the end of “Experience”: the transformation of genius into practical power.
  3. metonymic: the focus is on relation and contiguity (the proximities) as well as contingency (accident, surprise); what lies near; the near explains the far–and the fact that language is the means or medium of this convertibility, as well as one of its best examples. I referred to metonymy initially in our reading of Emerson’s Nature (his understanding of relation, of parts related to an unseen whole. For further thinking on the poetics of metonymy and its difference from metaphor, read this post from my blog on The Essay.
  4. organic: the focus is on living forms. “Rightly, poetry is organic. We cannot know things by words and writing, but only by taking a central position in the universe and living it its forms. We sink to rise” [309]

Think how this last point and principle–sinking to rise–reiterates the previous three. Convertibility thus relates the local to the global, the near to the far. And it unsettles (to use the word from “Circles) or de-centers the individual at the very same time that it relates her or him to something larger–but something other. Think of this line from “The Transcendentalist” where Emerson has in mind the “manifold” symbolic nature of the world–and think of the poetic implications for this concept, the sort of writing that such a vision of relational thought would create.

His thought,–that is the Universe. His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him. [95]

As a way to grasp the poetics (the writing) of this passage, not just its concept, is it too much to see and hear in Emerson’s first sentence, the transition marked by the dash, Whitman’s ellipses or Dickinson’s dashes? We will have to wait and see. This is suggests that as we turn a corner in the course to focus on Emersonian Poetics, on his interest in the Poet, and his influence in American poetry, particularly by way of poets such as Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Frost, are into new territory? Or are we continuing to think about Emerson’s philosophy of intellect, of the scholar, of experience?

Here is a recent reading of Emerson’s essay “The Poet” by the contemporary essayist Sven Birkerts. This suggests that there is a familiar problem that we encounter in Emerson’s conception of poetry and the poet’s stance, or argument. One word for that familiar problem: soul.

[The image is from Robert Frank’s The Americans, the book by the photographer I would offer as an Emersonian artist/poet; I think of photography in metonymic terms–the way it represents the “conditions” of its subject]


The Poet Whom Emerson Describes

September 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Toward the end of “The Poet,” Emerson writes, famously: “I look in vain fro the poet whom I describe.” Famous, in large part, because it sounds like he is describing the kind of poetry we will get, in the next decade, with Whitman and Leaves of Grass. Many have imagined Whitman reading these lines and answering the call. When we get to Whitman, we will certainly get back to Emerson’s conception of the poet and see if it does indeed make sense to think of Whitman’s poetry as Emersonian.

But I also want to open a larger door on this question and suggest that we continue to think about the kind of poet/poetry–and more broadly, poetics–that Emerson describes: and to ask where we do or don’t find this in American culture today, or in more recent years. In terms of finding Emerson’s poet in the form of poetry, one American poet from late 20th century that is often thought of as Emersonian is A.R. Ammons. You can see from this description from the Poetry Foundation that he is viewed as Emerson’s “progeny.” Here is an example, his poem “Poetics”:

I look for the way
things will turn
out spiralling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in

so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
totally its apparent self:

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will

not the shape on paper — though
that, too — but the
uninterfering means on paper:

not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.

Where else might we look for Emerson’s poet–outside of poetry, or at least, outside of places we traditionally think of as poetry?  We will see that Emerson reiterates, particularly in “Poetry and Imagination,” that poetry is found in the low and common and familiar, in the street–and thus, he argues, people say they hate poetry and are in fact, in their everyday lives, poetic. In that sense, do we have in more recent years, or at any point in the last 100 years, an Emersonian poet of the everyday? Whom would you suggest?

If we follow Emerson’s thinking (the kind we see in the “Shakspeare” essay, for example, from Representative Men), this latter-day Emersonian poet would show more than a line of “influence” from Emerson. He or she (or it, given that I suppose it could be some sort of intelligent machine, these days) would at some level be more Emerson than Emerson, by showing/revealing the “Emerson” we share with him.

The editors of the Norton edition of Emerson’s Prose suggest (in footnote to “The Poet,” p. 192) that Emily Dickinson’s “inebriate of air” is inspired by Emerson’s discussion of the “intellect inebriated,” the poet who gets drunk on nature and genius, drinking God’s wine. See what you think; here is Dickinson (in a 1924 edited version of the poem):

I TASTE a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!
Inebriate of air am I, 5
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.
When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove’s door, 10
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!
Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler 15
Leaning against the sun!

In our discussion of “Circles,” I began to list some keywords from the essay that I read as markers of Emerson’s philosophy of writing; that is to say, ideas and language that speak to Emerson’s ideas, but also are related implicitly to his writing: transition, series, circulation, proximity, surprise, experiment, enthusiasm, thinking, abandonment. Look for variations on these in “The Poet,” particularly around a keyword in that essay: metamorphosis. There is also this line from “Circles” that relates to writing in its focus on Emerson’s primary means of thinking the world and its metamorphic relations, words: The simplest words,–we do not know what they mean, except when we love and aspire. Difficult to fully comprehend what that means, but I would suggest it may be an Emersonian definition of what poets are doing with words. It makes me think, for sure, of Whitman and Dickinson. So in your reading of Emerson’s “Poet” and his poetics this week (and later with Whitman and Dickinson), look for love and aspiration in relation to words.

One final point. Whitman attends a lecture version of Emerson’s “The Poet” in New York City in 1842, and reports on it for a newspaper. The lecture has some differences from the published essay.

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